Headlines: March 3rd, 2006

A research project has uncovered successful strategies to tackle the problem of the differences in performance between departments within the same school, which has been described as the greatest educational challenge of our time. The project involved head teachers working with the National College for School Leadership.The College says that ‘Within school variation’ was an issue that did not have the clear information to pinpoint it or little idea what to do about it. The research has identified strategies being used successfully by schools and these will be unveiled at a national conference today.

Within-school Variation is regarded as one of the main barriers to children’s attainment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says variation in performance within British schools is four times greater than the variation between schools generally and it says this results in dramatic contrasts in pupils’ achievements. When factors such as social background are taken out of the picture variation is greater in British schools than those in almost any other developed nation.

The strategies to be revealed today have all led to improvements in performance and, in some cases, have reduced the variation between targeted departments. Ray Tarleton, a head teacher in Devon and national co-ordinator of NCSL’s Leadership Network, said, “These results indicate that we may have found the keys to unlock one of the greatest educational challenges of our time. What works for these schools could well work for thousands of other schools.”

The research project focused on variation between departments in secondary schools and variation between teachers in primaries. Schools taking part were allowed to devise their own strategies and those reporting reductions in variation shared three common approaches to tackling the problem. These were recognition that variation is a leadership issue and that head teachers and others in leadership roles have a responsibility to act; ensuring that information on pupil performance was consistent throughout the school and a consistent, systematic approach in applying methods to tackle variation.

Professor David Reynolds of the University of Plymouth, who has been working with the project head teachers, said, “This is a significant breakthrough in tackling a problem for schools. We now know from the self-invention of the schools involved in this project what to do to reduce within-school variation.”